Thursday, 12 November 2009

Derby revisited

I went back to Derby. I was determined to see L'Armee du Crime. This time I'd checked with QUAD that the film had been properly ingested. My cold was a bit better. Something at the back of my mind warned me that I wasn't quite well enough but I was fed up with limitations and headed back to the cinema.

I think this is only the second French film about the Resistance I've seen. The first, L'Armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows), shook me with its darkness. It began and ended during the occupation and showed members of a Resistance cell punishing their own members - always with execution - when any disobedience made the group vulnerable to betrayal. Although I knew that the Occupation ended, there was no happy ending of Liberation.

The title of L'Armée du Crime suggested a dialogue with the earlier film. There are other similarities. The film is similar in shape: it begins and ends during the Occupation, shows a key character being captured early in the film and ends by explaining what happened to the surviving characters. But there are key differences.

In L'Armée des Ombres, the main characters are members of mainstream French society who therefore seem to represent French opposition to Nazi occupation. I may be misrembering, but the film seemed to me as shadowy as its title. Shades were sombre as though brightness had been leached from the film-maker's palette.

L'Armée du Crime, like the recently-released photographs by André Zucca, has sequences of light. There are moments of happiness when Paris is, as one of the characters says, "beautiful". Ordinary Parisiens get on with their lives in technicolor. They - like the Resistance members and Nazi occupiers - have picnics, enjoy food, sing and make love. The Nazi occupiers who are killed and blown up by the Resistance are not deeply characterised but - perhaps more disturbingly - are shown enjoying life in Paris. The stroll in the sunshine, look at the Eiffel Tower, attend a book launch, chat with laughing young women in the doorway of a brothel. Neither they nor the Resistance members have lost their capacity for happiness.

Inevitably the light and happiness is in tension with darker events. Communist prisoners are executed in revenge for every Nazi killed. First ten are executed for every one Nazi, then twenty. A policeman who seems as kindly and anxious as every hero of a police procedural sighs as he reports a woman's anxieties about her neighbour - and sighs again when he watched the neighbour being tortured. Jews, trusting the French commitment to the "rights of man" stitch yellow stars onto their clothes. Then they obey the French policemen who cram them into ordinary buses on their way to the internment camp at Drancy. The buses roll past ordinary Parisiens who are unconcerned.

As the film proceeds, the contrast between everyday happiness and the cruelties that ordinary people would rather ignore becomes sharper. A soundtrack of Charles Trenet singing "Je chante" plays as a Jewish restaurant is smashed. Human beings are tortured in a cellar and no-one - not even the victims - questions that this is how things are. Outside is familiar Paris. There is still sunlight and beauty.

This isn't a film about typical French heroes defending their country from an external invader. Its focus is the cell led by the Armenian poet Missak Manouchian. Almost all the cell members are immigrants or stateless refugees. Manouchian's father was killed in the Armenian genocide and the group included Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Romanians and Spaniards. Some were Spanish Civil War veterans. Several were Jewish. Most were Communists and the story begins with news of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, which brought the Nazi-Soviet pact to an end, heightening the vulnerability of communist exiles in France.

The decision to resist violently is not treated lightly in this film. Manouchian in particular, chooses to abandon his ethical principles. But there are no easy choices for the members of this Resistance cell. Most of them risk death merely by being "untermensch." But the official poster - l'affiche rouge - issued after their death failed in its attempt to show the cell members as criminals rather than liberators. Its description of the activities of the Manouchian group led to the accolade "morts pour la France" (died for France).

It's a long, complex and gripping film. I walked away from the cinema reflecting on French response to the film. Although it was shown out of competition at Cannes - and despite the director's reputation - the film did badly in reviews and at the box office. I wondered whether this was caused by the film's implicit response to L'Armée des Ombres. It's an uncomfortable film, given the way the Liberation of Paris is currently perceived: achieved by the Resistance with the support of the people of Paris. I wondered uncomfortably how current anti-immigrant feeling had worked against the film. Imprisonment and deportation of refugees take place regularly - in England too - to widespread silence from the safe, passport-holding citizens of Europe.

I was nervous on the dark, damp and empty streets that led to the station. After all the violence of the film, I was alert to the risk of attack. I glanced ahead and tried to check no-one was lurking in the shadowy spaces behind bollards or advertisements. Gradually, as the few strangers on the roads failed to attack me - I think they were more concerned with getting home or to the pub - I became calmer.

There was some time to wait before my train. I took up the recommendation of a commenter on my previous post and enjoyed a swift half in the Brunswick, a restored Georgian pub with micro-brewery. It's very convenient for the station and I hope to go there again when I'm next in Derby. A £1 cone of chips from the Station Fish Bar provided a warming supper as I headed home.

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